December 12, 2019

MSM Spotlight: Voice students Joanne Evans (MM ’21) and Blair Cagney (BM ’18, MM ’20)

Masters students Joanne and Blair are featured cast members in MSM Opera Theater’s colorful and comical production of Saverio Mercadante’s “I due Figaro”December 12–15 in Niedorff-Karpati Hall.

This opera is conducted by Stefano Sarzani and directed by MSM Opera Theater’s Artistic Director Dona D. Vaughn.

Joanne and Blair talk about their roles in the production and their individual journeys toward becoming professional opera singers.

What are your roles in I due Figaro?

Joanne: This opera is a sequel to The Marriage of Figaro, set fifteen years later, and I play Cherubino. He was a boy in The Marriage of Figaro, but in this story he’s a thirty-year-old man. He’s just returned from his time in the military, and is a very attractive, intelligent, young rake of a man.

Blair: I play Susanna, Figaro’s wife. We get married in The Marriage of Figaro, hence the name. Figaro and Susanna are head servants to the Conte and Contessa. When Cherubino returns from war, I help him with his plan to marry the Conte and Contessa’s daughter, Inez. Cherubino and I are on the same team, fighting against Figaro who has become a kind of villain in this story—Figaro and I aren’t as happily married as we used to be, it’s become more complex.

Joanne: Yes, this story isn’t pure romance like The Marriage of Figaro or The Barber of Seville. There’s a lot going on besides Cherubino falling in love with Inez.

Blair: The Conte doesn’t want Inez and Cherubino to be together, and Figaro has his own plot with the marriage to steal the dowry, all while Susanna is trying to help Inez and Cherubino be together. It’s all very convoluted!

Joanne Evans (MM ’21) (left) and Blair Cagney (BM '18, MM ’20). Photos by Toby Winarto, Viola (BM '19, MM '21).

What’s your favorite part of the production?

Joanne: There’s a very cute call back to The Marriage of Figaro where Cherubino gets shoved in a cupboard once again, to hide from Figaro and the Conte. So fifteen years later, I get hidden in a wardrobe once again, and am discovered again. It’s a really fun reveal, very pantomime-esque.

Blair: My favorite scene is probably right before that moment—when Susanna, Cherubino, and Inez are trying to hide. Susanna’s yelling at Cherubino, telling her to get in her closet, and everyone is running around in total chaos, because Figaro is trying to get into the room.

Video preview of "I due Figaro," taking place Dec 12-15 at Manhattan School of Music

Tell us about your journey to MSM and studying classical voice.

Blair: When I was growing up, I really liked musical theater. Once I got to high school I needed a voice teacher because I wanted to keep improving. The teacher I found was an older woman who used to sing with New York City Opera back in the 80s, and she opened my eyes to the whole opera world. I was like, “Oh, I don’t have to dance and I can sing high notes? That’s the best of both worlds!”. I made the switch to opera, and she recommended that I apply to Manhattan School of Music. I came here for my undergraduate degree and haven’t been able to leave since!

Joanne: My origin story is almost exactly the same, I loved musical theatre and my teacher told me I would love opera, and I did. I did my undergraduate degree in London, where I’m from. I took a break from it for five years and did some musical theatre and quite a lot of pop singing, and for a while I thought maybe I wanted to pursue that instead. But I’ve found there’s just nothing as physically and mentally satisfying as classical singing. It’s such a well-rounded art form, a “gesamtkunstwerk” as Wagner would say.

I was in an a cappella show for a long time, and we did a US tour for six months, and I liked America a lot more than I thought I would. All of the singers playing the leads and winning the competitions are American at the moment, so I thought there must be something in the water, and I applied to a few schools in the US. I didn’t expect to get in, let alone get enough scholarship to be able to come, but it all worked out! I also did not want to be in New York originally, but during my consultation lesson here my teacher said to me, “Why would you be anywhere else in the world? Everything happens in New York”

“I’ve found there’s just nothing as physically and mentally satisfying as classical singing. It’s such a well-rounded art form.”

Classical Voice, MM '21

Who are you’re studying with at Manhattan School of Music?

Joanne: I’m studying with Edith Bers. I wanted to study with her because she’s taught a lot of my favorite singers, which is kind of a big deal for me. I’m very bowled over by that. I’m so glad I ended up in her studio—I didn’t think I’d be able to get in because she teaches so many incredible people. I hadn’t had a female voice teacher during the last ten years, so I wanted to experience that. She’s very supportive, not just in terms of technique, but mentally. She always says the right thing to cool my anxiety, which is very important to do in this profession.

Blair: I’ve been studying with Ruth Golden since I started classes at MSM as a freshman. I didn’t really know anyone on the faculty because I was only 17 when I first came here, and was just hoping to get in! Ruth was in fact, the only teacher to accept me into her studio. It feels like divine intervention because now I truly can’t imagine studying with anyone else in the world. Ruth, and voice and music teachers in general, share so much more than just technique—they’re teaching you how to be a good person, and how to function in this high stress career that we’ve chosen. Ruth gives me amazing life advice on top of musical technique and direction and I’m indebted to her forever for that.

Are you involved in any clubs on campus? What do you enjoy doing outside of MSM?

Blair: During my undergrad years here I was really involved in Student Council. The organization was new and just getting started so we were able to grow it and start a lot of initiatives like the Fall Formal. I was actually vice president at one point, but because of how demanding graduate school is I’ve had to take a step back. It’s still one of my favorite student organizations here.

Joanne: Honestly, I don’t have a lot of time outside of grad school, which is good because that’s what I wanted out of this experience! MSM provides ample opportunities and resources to fill every single day. In my spare time I go to The Metropolitan Opera, I try to see every new production in the season. Sometimes I’ll go to the gym, go for a run, or watch a lot of Grey’s Anatomy.

As the new year approaches, what goals do you have for 2020?

Blair: I’d like to be better at sticking with good habits. I often make habits that last for a short period of time when it comes to learning and organizing music. I’d love to become more of a morning person, and be more productive. I tend to let deadlines loom over me rather than running alongside them. In my music and my personal life, I’d like to form and keep better habits.

Joanne: My focus is going to be quite technical next semester. I’m going to try and learn a lot more song. I’ve been quite hard-headed about only learning arias for the past few years because I want to be an opera singer, but I really want to explore song and give my voice and vocal health that experience. My goal is to be able to sing a Mozart song or aria well.